We are living in the Web 2.0 era. The past few years has seen the rise and dominance of user-created content sites such as Facebook and YouTube. Web 2.0 has been called the “participatory Web” because it facilitates creativity, information sharing and collaboration.
Young people have enthusiastically embraced this social medium, which lets them express themselves and create networks of friends. Their online activities include instant messaging, social networking, blogs, uploading and downloading videos, and participating in online game where players from around the world determine storylines. But Web 2.0’s immense possibilities have a trade-off – privacy invasions – which can happen in two distinct ways:
- Marketing of our personal information. Commercial Web sites exist to collect personal information on users and target them with marketing messaging. For example, on its page for advertisers, Facebook lists the benefits of its unique environment for carefully targeting consumers and integrating content, recommendations from friends, and viral distribution of ads.
- Putting information online that is accessible to all. When kids fill out a detailed profile on MSN or a social networking site, they may be allowing all users of the network to have access to their information and photos if they aren’t careful. Once posted online, information is out of our control and often difficult to remove.
Whether to manage their reputation, stay safe online or outsmart advertisers, kids need to develop skills to manage their privacy on the Internet.
Privacy and commercial Web sites
An important concept young people need to grasp is that their personal information has value and belongs to them. Today’s youth tend to have fairly casual attitudes towards this – a trait that online marketers are eager to cultivate, starting with the youngest Internet users.
Kids and teens may be eager to share information about an illness, a treatment they are undergoing or to post photos of themselves while at the hospital. But making this medical information available could potentially have long-term repercussions, for example, should they try to obtain health insurance as adults. Parents also need to be cautious about what they post about their children.What might not bother your son or daughter when they are 5 years old might be very embarrassing for them at 15 years old when they information is still living out there on the Internet.
The Internet makes the job of marketing professionals much easier. On the Web, young people voluntarily provide information that advertisers once had to pay for. Popular sites like Neopets, Barbie and Webkinz use a variety of techniques to persuade users to give out information which can then be used to create promotional campaigns that specifically target young people.
There are a number of industry guidelines that address online privacy and while they are only voluntary, it's possible to contact sites your children use and make sure they follow them. The Canadian Marketing Association's Code of Ethics for Marketing to Children, for instance, forbids collecting any data at all from children under 13 without consent from a parent or guardian.
The best way for parents to determine what information is being collected on sites their children visit is to review their privacy policies – which are usually linked at the bottom of each page.
Media Awareness Network has prepared a list of questions parents should ask:
- What kind of information about your child is collected and how will this information be used?
- Can you change or erase any of the information that has been collected about your child?
- What steps are suggested to ensure your child’s safety when he or she participates in activities on the site?
- Does this conform to industry guidelines on online marketing to children and collection of information from children on the Internet?
- What methods are used to ensure parents have given their consent before a child provides personal information online?
- How can you contact or obtain more information about the company hosting the Web site?
Privacy concerns on social networking sites
Kids begin visiting commercial sites at early ages. While participating in activities in these online playgrounds, young players are often rewarded with points, prizes and perks when they give away personal information. It seems fairly harmless, but there are commercial and safety implications that need to be considered – especially when young people begin interacting on sites where personal information is accessible not only to advertisers, but to other Internet users as well.
Social networking sites and virtual worlds often ask users to fill out a detailed profile that may include their name, address and various personal details. For example, Facebook includes options for "Political Views", "Religious Views" and "Relationship Status" as part of its user profiles.
It is futile and counterproductive to attempt to force young people not to reveal anything about themselves in their profiles. A better approach is to emphasize that they are in charge of how much personal information they want to share about themselves online – and with whom – by drawing their attention to the different ways they can create and protect their profiles.
For preteens, status on instant messaging and social networking sites is based on the number of “friends” they are connected to, so it’s common for them to accept friend requests from anyone who asks. A basic ground rule for kids this age is to only accept friend requests from people they know in real life and to make sure their settings restrict access to their profiles to close friends.
During adolescence, when online social activity is intense, parents need to discuss with their teens the nature of these interactions. Making private information public is the most common form of cyberbullying, (Pew Internet & American Life Project, Parents and Teens Survey, November 2006) and even if they’re only sent to friends or partners, personal messages and compromising photos can be devastating down the line. In broader terms, teens should consider the permanent nature of what they post. While their parents may have been able to outlive foolish youthful behaviour without a permanent record, adolescent shenanigans posted online today have an unlimited shelf life and can potentially remain in cyberspace forever. Deleting information doesn’t mean it’s gone: it’s not unusual for Terms and Conditions on social networking sites to grant permission to the site’s creators to retain ownership of archived content – even if it has been removed. Because Terms and Conditions often include legal jargon and are commonly written at a university level, it’s a good idea for parents to review them with their teens when they sign up.
Young people may be eager to share information about an illness, a treatment they are undergoing or post photos of their hair loss following treatment. But making this medical information available could have repercussions down the road as they try to obtain health insurance. Ensuring that privacy settings are set so that only friends can see their profile, may help mitigate the chance that their health information is made readily available to anyone looking for it.
Respecting your children’s privacy rights
When we talk about “young people’s rights to their privacy” parents are in a tough spot: they want to protect their kids and at the same time respect their privacy.
First, it helps to start the conversation as soon as your child starts surfing the Web – and keep it going as your child gets older. What is your child doing online? What is he or she interested in? What are your expectations about appropriate online behaviour?
Establishing an environment of openness and sharing towards your child’s online activities from the very beginning will make this much easier to maintain during adolescence when your child’s natural development will lead him or her towards more independent online communications.
At the same time, parents have a job to do. With younger adolescents, a condition of having instant messaging or social networking accounts could be that passwords must be shared with parents and conversation logs are saved. At any age, let your kids know that if you are concerned about their online activities – and if conversation doesn’t seem to be working – you may need to access these accounts or review the sites they visit.
Tips for parents
Parents play an important role in teaching their kids the importance of protecting personal information while online.
- Teach your kids the value of their personal information – start when they are young.
- In commercial sites, teach your kids to leave the bare minimum in personal information.
- To minimize commercial influences and online data collection, lead young children to high-quality non-commercial sites for kids that are fun and educational. Ask other parents, teachers or librarians for their recommendations or use reputable online directories of recommended children's sites.
- On social networking sites, make sure privacy settings are set so that only friends can see their profiles.
- Read the privacy policies on the Web sites that your kids visit.
- Create solid guidelines for your kids and teens if they shop online. Make sure that any site they use has provisions in place to ensure that transactions are safe and secure.
- Sit with your kids when they're registering for various Web sites and activities online.
What CHEO will do to mitigate the risks associated with sharing information
© 2010 Media Awareness Network, www.media-awareness.ca, adapted with permission. For additional information on media awareness, please visit http://www.media-awareness.ca